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10 Essential Superman Comics To Help You Forget Smallville

Illustration for article titled 10 Essential Superman Comics To Help You Forget Smallville

Do Smallville and Superman Returns have you convinced that it's impossible to tell good Superman stories? Here're our recommendations for the books that prove otherwise.

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The Beginning
Superman: Birthright
The second most recent retelling of Superman's origins (The most recent, Superman: Secret Origin, just started last month), Mark Waid and Francis Lenil Yu's 2003 twelve-part revamp updated the Man of Steel for the 21st Century, bringing back many concepts and ideas lost from the comics since the mid-80s (Amongst them, Lex Luthor as childhood friend - Something that Smallville had brought back into the public consciousness) and giving us a more pro-active and easier to relate to Kal-El. Overlooked on its original release, and quickly removed from continuity by 2005's Infinite Crisis, this is still one of the best versions of the character's earliest days.

The Ending(s)
Superman: Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow
The classic "End of Superman" story, Alan Moore and Curt Swan's farewell to the character revisits characters from his past in a way that's part celebration and part "What were they thinking?" The recently-released "deluxe hardcover" edition also contains Moore's other classic Superman story, "For The Man Who Has Everything."

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JLA: DC One Million
Technically not a Superman story, but anyone who's read Grant Morrison's tale of the return of "Superman Prime" in the 853rd Century - and the multi-time-period, part-intergalactic-assassination-attempt, part-genocide-attempt it spawns - knows that Clark Kent could've asked for no greater 60th birthday present, especially with the happy ending Morrison provides at the end.

The Future
Superman And The Legion Of Super-Heroes
As well as rebooting the Superman spin-off Legion of Super-Heroes, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's 2008 storyline also looks at the legacy of the character, jumping ahead 1000 years to a world where Superman's mythology has been twisted into something more bigoted and exclusive, all as an excuse to show what Superman really stands for. You'll cheer when the tables turn towards the end.

The What Ifs
Superman: Red Son
What if the all-American hero landed in Russia? Mark Millar, Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett's 2003 series takes the alternate history route all the way to the far future, and brings in Batman, Wonder Woman, JFK and Stalin for the ride.

Superman: Secret Identity
A more real-world take on the Superman idea, Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen's touching 2004 story takes the ideas behind the character for a metatextual, science fiction spin, showing a Clark Kent who lives in "the real world," but develops super powers nonetheless.

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The Time Capsules
The Superman Chronicles Vol. 1
The earliest appearances of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's hero, reprinted in the order in which they appeared, it's a wonderful (and relatively cheap) look back at the origins of one of the 20th century's most iconic creations.

Showcase Presents: Superman Family Vol. 2
Mid-50s insanity collecting issues of the spin-off series Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen and Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane, showing the weird and wonderful science fiction fables that the character had started to populate after his first flush of success.

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Superman: The Death And Return Of Superman Omnibus
Not just the highlight of Superman's 1990s, but one of the sales highlights of comics of the decade in general, the story of Superman's "death" and subsequent return may not be the most compelling story the character has ever appeared in - and may fall apart once he has to come back - but it's definitely one of the most read.

The Ones To Own If You Can Only Own One (Okay, Two)
All-Star Superman Vols. 1 & 2
Starting with a one-page recap of the character's roots and speeding (like a bullet, in fact) through a series of challenges and stories highlighting what the character means to his friends, family and even his fans, Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly's two-volume meditation on Superman is exciting, surprisingly gentle and filled with affection, and possibly the greatest Superman series published to date. Everything you need to know about Superman is in here, and maybe a little more, too.

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DISCUSSION

I've been of a feeling for a while that the Superman franchise is very top heavy. By that I mean it's become far to elaborate and bogged down by tangents that have no bearing on the essential tale. In this respect, the Superman franchise has long passed its prime.

I also think that for Superman to re-emerge it needs to discard the excess baggage and refocus on the core character with an emphasis on his destiny.

To do this, I'm of the thinking that Superman should not be portrayed as an alien from another world, something that is increasingly difficult to except. That an alien being should develop with the same physical and behavioral characteristics of one of us has always stricken me as a combination of ethnocentrism, hubris, and scientific fallacy.

I would find it at least equally credible and considerably more compelling if Kal-el were not an alien but a human being sent from our own future to save us. Kryptonite would be an industrial by product of an advanced technology that had doomed our world. Along these lines, Lex Luthor would be the industrialist whose innovations would inexorably lead to the destruction of humanity. Or something along those lines.

It was recently pointed out to me by someone on this forum that a similar storyline was the basis of Red Son, although I have not read that interpretation.

In any case, for Superman to re-emerge it might be necessary to have a harsh reboot of the franchise. Otherwise it will suffer the fate of other myths that make entertaining bed time stories for children but don't truly resonate the way it should with the audience it should.